I ran across this fascinating little column by Denis Prager in the L.A. Times. It details what I would label as a postmodern ethical trend in public schools. He tells the story of asking a room full of high school students if they would steal from a department store if they were sure they would not get caught. In front of cameras taping for a syndicated pilot, the majority of them raised their hands. Based on this and his experience speaking to youth, Prager draws a handful of conclusions regarding public education and moral development. The whole article is worth a read, but a couple of points in particular stood out to me.
In these two conclusions Prager notes how morality is abstracted to the social level and not applied on an individual level, and that when moral demands are made of individuals they regard health and not personal vice and virtue. In his words:
To the extent that schools deal with right and wrong, it is in the arena of social values, not personal behavior. Students are taught what the schools deem correct positions on matters of social concern — such as war, the environment, social justice — but little about personal integrity. At the entrance of a highly regarded Los Angeles public school, there is a sign calling for world peace in four languages. Other signs on campus similarly exhort students to adopt various social positions. Not one sign addresses self — as opposed to social — amelioration.
To the extent that demands are made on young people, they concern health, not integrity and character. Smoking, for instance, is villainized. Copying software, downloading music without paying for it, cheating on tests, lying on insurance claims are not.
Now, the things decried in these two points ought to be decried. The problem is that they are moral points pressed to the exclusion of personal virtue.
I call this a postmodern moral condition for a couple of reasons. First, because postmodern morality is inherently relativistic, all individuals are exempt from moral judgment and are then by definition “good.” Secondly, and ironically, in our postmodern milieu, it is popular to make a certain type of moral judgment-namely judgments that are relatively nebulous and corporate in scale. So, it is commonplace to hear pollution, greed, violence and the like labeled as “bad,” but never connected to personal moral evil. A typical exception may be the moral hypocrisy of labeling big-business leaders as evil but failing to label the same evil traits in others as evil. Thus it appears that evil is a function of influence and not of personal vice. Moral relativism is the kind of view that is not only self referentially destructive, but it also destroys the rational capacities of those who adhere to it.
Thus, in Prager’s example, the youth were able to justify personal vice because they viewed a certain type of corporate entity as evil.
The Christian ethic is clear: societies, groups, corporations, etc., can commit evil, but culpability ultimately rests on individuals. What was the Nazi regime but a collection of individuals, some of which were so evil and influential they were able to illicit tremendous evils from others? Look at this from the angle of retribution or the enactment of justice for evil committed by a regime. The Nuremberg trials did not condemn Nazism to the gallows-it condemned several individuals. How is a collective to be punished if not individual by individual?
In addition, the Christian ethic explains how corporate evils come to be: they are the result of individuals making evil or sinful decisions. Individuals have within them the capacity for great sin, and thus their influence sometimes leads to great evils on large scales.
It is moral cowardice to selectively label collectives as evil and not recognize or acknowledge the potential evil inherent in each and every individual. It is the equivalent of naming everything we personally favor as “good” and everything we personally dislike as “evil.” When that happens, both words become vacuums of meaning, infinitely malleable and ultimately completely useless.